Public Transit Access

Public Transit Access

What does this indicator measure?

This indicator measures the percentage of people living close to convenient, reliable transit, as defined by a half-mile or ten-minute walk, that comes every fifteen minutes or less during peak commute times. For more information, see: The California Department of Public Health’s California Building Resilience Against Climate Effects (CalBRACE) Public Transit Access Narrative.

The connection to health

Every person should be able to get to school, work, doctor and dentist appointments, and other destinations that provide essential goods and services. Transit access has been linked to improved physical and mental health, physical activity, employment outcomes, medical care, and resiliency during disasters. Public transportation or transit includes buses, trains, subways, and other shared transportation services. For households and individuals without access to a car, including many low-income individuals and people of color, public transportation can be a critical link to jobs and other health supportive destinations that provide essential goods and services. Transit options can provide cheaper alternatives to driving and help people save on costs of owning and operating a car.

Public transportation also carries more passengers per mile than a car, and can help reduce congestion and pollution. Using public transportation allows people to get regular exercise. The U.S. Surgeon General recommends at least 30 minutes of physical activity per day, and most people can reach that goal simply by walking or biking to transit, while also building physical activity into their daily lives. This can add up: nearly a third of public transportation users are physically active for 30 minutes or more each day just from walking to and from their pickup location.65 Studies have shown that people who use public transportation for any reason were less likely to be sedentary or obese, taking 30% more steps and walking 8.3 more minutes per day than people who mostly drove everywhere.66 Walking to and from public transportation can also save people money on healthcare costs. One study estimated lifetime savings of $5,550 per person in 2007 dollars.68

Conversely, lack of access to public transportation can negatively impact one’s health, particularly for those who depend on it as their primary transportation option. Where transit service is scarce or when routes are cut back, people have less access to goods and services, employment, and other opportunities. Low-income individuals and people of color, who use public transportation options the most, are greatly impacted by lack of access.67 During extreme heat events and other climate-related events, having access to public transportation can greatly impact the health outcomes of these communities. In some cases, transportation is required for survival and sufficient access to the transit system during these events is essential.

Where to start?

Improving public transportation access requires multiple steps, all designed to prepare communities and households for climate-related hazards and to support community resilience and action to reduce risks. Different strategies are needed in urban and rural areas, but overall the goal is to provide access by way of public transit to opportunities that generate healthier community conditions (access to jobs, schools, clinical care, parks, grocery stores with healthy, fresh, affordable food, etc) and ensure resilience69 during climate-related weather events by providing access to cooling centers, emergency support services, and organized evacuations.

Plan for Resilience

Assess Vulnerabilities

Legislation enacted in 2015 (SB 379) requires California jurisdictions to conduct vulnerability assessments and define resiliency goals, policies, and objectives in either the safety element of their General Plan, or by incorporating it in local hazard mitigation planning. Local jurisdictions can reduce the health impacts of extreme heat by using these planning processes to understand likely climate changes and impacts, assess vulnerability, and craft interventions. The State of California has developed the Adaptation Planning Guide, a step-by-step guide for local governments, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Building Resilience Against Climate Effects (BRACE) Framework offers guidance for health agencies and others seeking to address the health effects of climate change.

Assessing vulnerability to climate impacts is a particularly important step in resilience planning. While climate change impacts all Californians, some individuals and families are more impacted, and have fewer resources to draw upon to help them adapt. The health impacts of climate change often deepen existing social inequities—magnifying or layering new risks on top of economic, social, environmental, biological, and health disparities. Using the BRACE framework, the California Department of Public Health has produced Climate Change and Health Profile Reports, summarizing health risks and vulnerability by county. They have also published Climate Change and Health Vulnerability Indicators to help local jurisdictions understand climate change and health vulnerability. The Healthy Places Index can also be used to assess underlying social vulnerabilities at the census tract level.

Maximizing Health Benefits

Actions designed to improve climate resilience also provide the opportunity to maximize additional health or quality of life benefits that can be achieved in addition to increased resilience. For example, the transportation policies discussed below improve access to safety during a disaster, but they also offer a range of other benefits. Enhanced public transit service can provide greater access to employment, education, health, and other goods and services that can improve quality of life and economic security. Adding new sidewalks and bicycle lanes as a way to improve the first and last mile to public transportation can also increase options available to residents, and promote physical activity. Transit pass programs can encourage higher transit ridership, reducing congestion on the streets. Transit passes can also reduce transportation costs for low-income households who are often burdened by high housing and transportation costs relative to their income. Smart growth development,143 and green infrastructure, which incorporates plants, soils and other natural features into the streetscape to manage storm water and reduce pollution,144 can make communities more resilient to other climate events and emergencies. Many of these strategies will ultimately result in more sustainable, equitable communities and help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and reduce vehicle miles traveled.

Ensure Participation

Resilience efforts should prioritize the participation of community members in each step of the process. This will help ensure that community standards, expectations and requirements are effectively addressed, while building buy-in and support for resilience measures, and improving community capacity to envision and address climate impacts. For more information, see: The California Department of Public Health’s Climate Action for Health, and the Urban Sustainability Directors Network’s Equitable, Community Driven Climate Preparedness Planning.

Policy Actions

In the short term, communities should make sure they are Getting Ready by assessing their current transit networks and operations for climate risks, as well as the system’s effectiveness in getting core transit riders where they need to go. They should also develop a plan for responding to extreme weather events. When these events occur, effective and targeted Emergency Response systems should be in place to get people who rely on public transit away from disaster and to emergency facilities.

In the longer term, governments should ensure residents have access to safety and essential destinations before, during, and after disasters by increasing their Infrastructure Investment in public transportation, including both expansions of the system and maintenance of existing operations. Local governments should also explore different Transit Pass options to lower the cost and incentivize greater use of public transportation. Since most transit riders walk or bike to the transit stop or station, jurisdictions should also improve First and Last Mile Connections.

Local governments and transit agencies should consider Smart Growth and how building and preserving affordable housing near transit can provide greater access to safety, health supportive destinations, and opportunity, and also how transit facility design can reduce the urban heat-island effect and keep people cool while waiting. Finally, local governments should foster Community Power and Connection, which has been shown to reduce social vulnerability and the health impacts of climate events, and also create public awareness and knowledge of the effects climate change in their communities.

Although climate resilience actions tend to save money in the long term, some come with a high immediate cost, especially infrastructure investments. Several funding sources and technical assistance programs support local government efforts to build more resilient infrastructure and ensure vulnerable populations have adequate public transportation access. For more information, see: The California Transit Association’s transit funding overview and the California Department of Transportation’s (Caltrans) web pages on the Low Carbon Transit Operations Program and Transit & Intercity Rail Capital Program. For more general climate resilience funding opportunities, see: The U.S. Climate Resilience Toolkit’s Funding Opportunities Page.